Four Problems

In my forthcoming book, An Inquiry into Analytic-Continental Metaphysics: Truth, Relevance, and Reality, I begin with four classic problems in metaphysics. The book unfolds from here, drawing from analytic and continental philosophers along the way, as I develop a metaphysics of problems, inspired by the work of Gilles Deleuze, to address these classic problems in metaphysics. I post the four problems here as a point for possible discussion, and as a basis for blog posts to come.

§1 Problem of the New

What is new, truly new? If we say that some event or phenomenon, A, is truly new, then by what criterion do we make this claim? The most immediate answer appears to be that what is new is unlike anything that preceded it, or there are no phenomena or events prior to A that include or harbor A, for if they did then A would not be truly new but would be simply the explication of what was already implicitly present. The problem of the new may therefore not even be a problem. One could echo the sentiments expressed in the book of Ecclesiastes and resign oneself to the view that ‘what has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun’ (Ecclesiates 1:9 New International Version). If one does accept that there can be something that is truly novel, a reality irreducible to what has preceded it, then we have other problems that come along when one accepts this.

§2 Problem of Relations

If the new is new by virtue of its relation to that which precedes it, that which is not new, then we have a relationship that needs to be explained if we are to understand what it is that makes something new. We need to explain, for instance, the relationship between the phenomenon that is new, A, and the phenomena or set of phenomena, let us call it B, that explains why A is new since A is unlike B but nonetheless related to B in some way. For instance, when Haydn first performed some of the pieces he composed while living in London, many considered them to be astonishingly new. In fact, a new category emerged in the wake of Haydn’s compositions, the category now known as the Classical tradition in music, a tradition that is different from the Baroque tradition. At the time of his London performances, however, there was not yet the Classical label with which to identify Haydn’s music, and yet this music was sufficiently unlike the music of his time (i.e., the Baroque music of his period) that it was considered new. What the new is new relative to, therefore, is important. Haydn’s music was considered new not because of how it differed from the cuisine of his time, though that could play a role in creating a culture or world where Haydn’s music became possible, but primarily how it related to other music. Even if we do not contest these points, however, we still have the problem of accounting for the relationship between A, Haydn’s music in this case, and B, the Baroque music of Haydn’s time. We cannot account for the novelty of A by simply focusing on A, for then we would neglect B, and it is the relationship between A and B that explains why A is new. We similarly cannot explain the relationship between A and B by just focusing on B, for then we ignore A, and it is the novelty of A we want to explain. We also cannot argue for another relationship, let us call it AB, between A and B that accounts for why A is novel in relation to B, because then we need to account for the relationship between AB and A and B, and so on as we launch ourselves upon a regress of forever needing a relationship to account for relationships. This is the problem of relations, and a problem that is generated, as F.H. Bradley argues, with any relation we may so choose, not just the relation between a new phenomenon, A, and that which it is new in relation to, B.

§3 Problem of Emergence

Another way to account for a new phenomenon is as a property that results from the systemic interactions of elements that then give rise to a property that is irreducible to any of these elements. An art dealer opens a gallery in an undeveloped warehouse district of a city. In time the gallery becomes popular. A few other galleries open in the same area, and before long the “warehouse district” becomes a new area of town that is known for its art and cultural activities. This new property of the city is irreducible to any one gallery or venue, but it is rather a property that emerges if there is a sufficient number of galleries and cultural events. Once the emergent property emerges, it can in turn have effects independent of the individual elements. People may now be drawn to the warehouse district in order to participate in its art scene, or the city as a whole may become known for its art scene and attract more residents as a result.  The behavior of ant colonies, multi-celled organism, the emergence of conscious life, among many other phenomena have all been explained in terms of emergent properties, properties that are new and irreducible to the phenomena from which they emerge, a categorial novum as Nicolai Hartmann put it (Hartmann 1942). At this point a variation of the problem of relations appears, for we still have the problem of explaining the relation between the emergent property and the elements from which this property emerges. A consequence of this problem is that critics will argue, along reductionist lines, that there is no true distinction between emergent properties and their underlying elements. David Lewis, as we will see, will adopt a version of this criticism of emergent properties (see §11), and Jessica Wilson will argue for a non-reductive naturalism that embraces key aspects of emergentism (see §12).

§4 Problem of One and Many

A final problem that will occupy us in the pages to follow is the problem of the one and the many. In his final publication, Donald Davidson discussed a version of this problem as the problem of predication (see §16). The problem, in short, is to account for the relation between a predicate, descriptor, or universal and the particular subjects that bear these predicates. This problem arises when we take up the Stranger’s challenge in the Sophist (from Davidson 2005, 80-1) and wonder how we can meaningfully make true and false statements, such as “Theaetetus sits” or “Theaetetus flies” (Sophist 260A-C) when, as in the case of false statements, there is no particular subject (Theaetetus) for whom the predicate (…is flying) applies. How can we meaningfully refer to or speak of that which does not exist? Davidson will chart the history of attempts to address this problem, beginning with Plato’s, and he ends by offering his own suggested solution (to be discussed in §16). Long before turning to Davidson, we will begin with Plato’s account of the relationship between the concepts and categories through which we think about the world and the many particulars that are identified by way of these concepts and categories. What is this relationship? Do we again have another version of the problem of relations, this time the problem of the relation between the One category, universal, or form and the Many particulars that share in this One form? It is to these questions that we now turn.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s